CORVALLIS - A group of experts from four western states and British Columbia are going to spend the next year producing what they say will be one of the most blunt, honest evaluations ever done on the status of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest and what it would actually take to save them.
These salmon and policy experts will collaborate on two symposiums and a published book with their conclusions, which may represent a wide diversity of opinion and suggested changes - some of which could be extreme.
The initiative, called the Salmon 2100 Project, is being organized by the Center for Water and Environmental Sustainability at Oregon State University, and the EPA laboratory in Corvallis, Ore.
"We don't really expect to end up with a single solution everyone will agree on, there may be a suite of options for the public and policy makers to sort through," said Robert Lackey, a senior fisheries biologist at the EPA and courtesy professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. "But we're going to find out what the leading experts in this field really believe has to be done if we are serious about saving wild salmon."
"Their statements will be what they believe personally, based on many years of experience, and will not be a reflection of a government, group or agency policy," Lackey said. "We expect some of the proposed solutions will be pretty drastic."
According to Lackey and Denise Lach, co-director of OSU's Center for Water and Environmental Sustainability, many leading experts have grave doubts whether the vast amount of resources and funds that have been poured into salmon protection and restoration have worked.
"Many of the people who are participating in our project are interested precisely because they have spent their careers working on salmon recovery projects that ultimately did not succeed," said Lach. "We've spent billions of dollars, caused a lot of social disruption, but to what purpose? And if the truth is that wild salmon are going to largely disappear in this region, are we being honest with the public?"
The problems leading to the decline of wild salmon runs are well catalogued, Lackey and Lach said. They include water pollution, loss of habitat, over-fishing, dam construction and operation, water use for irrigation and other purposes, competition with hatchery-produced salmon, predation by other species, diseases and parasites, and climatic and oceanic shifts.
And the greatest future threat, in addition to all of that, may be huge population growth that compounds any or all of these other problems.
Much less clear, they say, is what - if anything - can realistically reverse this process and preserve wild salmon runs beyond 2100.
"People often say they want to preserve wild salmon, so we want to lay out for the public and policy makers what it will actually take to do that, in the opinion of some of the leading experts," Lackey said. "The forces at work are getting more difficult all the time, the pressures of population, commerce, energy demands, water scarcity. The real solutions may call for huge, huge changes, and we may need to do more than just talk while we ignore fundamental trends."
"And it may be that society will decide, once people really understand the facts, that salmon are not worth that much trouble and expense," Lackey said. "Saving salmon is not just about a fishery, it's about our social values, our goals and competing public priorities. But the first step is an honest, blunt assessment so we can make informed choices."
The 28 participants in this project include science and policy experts with a background in academia, regulatory agencies, Indian tribes, environmental groups, industry and others. Several are retired, and none will be speaking on behalf of the agency or organization they work for, now or in the past.
The challenge put to the group, Lackey and Lach said, is to identify and describe specific, practical policy options that, if adopted, would successfully sustain significant numbers of wild salmon through this century.
Two symposiums will be held to present preliminary conclusions in February and September, 2005, and a book on the conclusions of participants will be published by January, 2006, officials say.
All of the participants in the project are donating their time and publications for free. The book that results from the project will be published by the American Fisheries Society.